We’ve just spent an hour of our lecture time watching a film called “Real Women Have Curves,” and another hour discussing our reactions to this movie about a Mexican family in Los Angeles, about a teenaged girl moving between two worlds. As usual, I throw out a few thoughts about identity as fluid and impermanent, self-chosen and constantly redefined depending on surroundings and context, and we have an interesting debate for some minutes. But most of all, we talk about cultural barriers, familial obligations, traditional values, ingrained expectations and responsibilities.
I walk out of the classroom with a quiet girl I don’t know very well. We don’t have to be anywhere at the moment, so we sit outside on the benches, in the sunshine, and talk some more about the movie. “That girl from the movie kind of reminded me of myself,” she says softly. “You know that scene near the end when she’s so happy and grateful, and she goes to give her father a hug, but he just looks at her, and she gets embarrassed and steps back again? That reminded me of me and my dad.”
I nod to show I’m listening, to gently prod her to continue, if she wishes. But even though we’re sitting next to each other, bodies half-turned to face each other, she refuses to look me in the eye. Instead, even as I gaze at her steadily, she’s alternately looking over my shoulder or at the ground. Generally, I get slightly irritated when people don’t look at me while I’m talking, and I can’t not look at people while they’re talking to me. But I understand that there are times when people are sometimes far more comfortable not making eye contact, and this seems to be one of them.
She tells me of how her father came up to visit over the weekend. At the end of the day, as he was about to leave, her roommates hugged him goodbye. He was surprised, yet smilingly accepted the hugs. When his daughter stepped forward though, he just nodded gruffly in her general direction, shoved his hands in his pockets, and turned to leave. He walked out the door in a flurry of waves and goodbyes from her roommates, while she stood there feeling small and insignificant and rejected.
She’s telling me her story calmly, unemotionally, and I’m wondering how I should respond. Before I can figure that out though, her voice breaks, and she bursts into tears.
Tears always make me panic. I don’t cry easily myself, and I really don’t know how to deal with people who cry. Especially strangers. After a moment of shock, I just put my arms around her. And while she cries her heart out for hugs she never had, I sit there and think of my own family.
I think of going out for ice cream on Thursday afternoons during childhood, and eating breakfast in the hallway on weekend mornings. Of frisbee matches and table soccer tournaments, bedtime stories about the Prophets and Pukhto lullabies passed down from my grandmother. Of my mother, who always stands out on the porch to smilingly wave goodbye, and my father, who calls me while we’re both on the road to wish me a beautiful day. I still remember the Sunday morning when my sister and I got in the car to head off to our halaqa. We were slowly reversing down the driveway when our dad knocked on the driver’s side window. We stopped the car, and he silently got into the backseat, sitting there with his arms crossed over his chest, his face set in unyielding lines. “Well, hello there, Daddy,” I laughed. “Did you want a ride to somewhere?” There was no answering trace of amusement in his face though, as he looked at us and said sternly, “You never know what could happen today. Don’t you ever, ever leave for somewhere without telling me and your mother goodbye and saying, ‘I love you.’”
I think of how hugs are second-nature to us, a given in my family.
I remember how a friend once scrunched up her nose and remarked, “You know, there’s something a little bit off about your family, but I just can’t put my finger on it.” I laughed and pressed her to put it into words, so that she finally said, “I got it. You guys are like the perfect ‘50s family. It’s almost disgusting.”
[We’re not really perfect, though. Please don’t jump to conclusions.]
I look at this girl, and I honestly don’t know what to say to her. She wipes her eyes and takes a deep breath. “Tell me about your family,” she says. For the first time, she’s really looking at me, and I find myself wishing she’d just look over my shoulder again, because maybe it’d be easier for me to speak that way.
I carefully pick through my thoughts and memories, but the words just stick in my throat. I’m sitting there utterly terrified of juxtaposing my own memories on hers, of belittling her childhood through comparison with mine, of accidentally saying something that will completely negate any positive memories she does associate with her family. “We say ‘I love you’ a lot,” I say finally, trying to sound objective, reflective, matter-of-fact instead of boastful or judgmental.
After all, what right do I have to boast or judge anyway? Much of what I have been blessed with, I fail to acknowledge or reciprocate as well as I could, or should.
And who’s to say my experiences are the quintessence of what love should be? There are many other ways of showing, proving one's love. Why must there be merely a “this way” or “that way”? There’s always an in-between way, too, a middle path. There is black and there is white, sure. But there is also gray, and even gray has several shades, a veritable muted rainbow in itself.